Monday, February 28, 2011

Walkin' Ojai

The Ojai Valley from Meditation Mount

Originally called Nordhoff, Ojai was mapped out in 1874, though the Chumash Indians had lived here for thousands of years prior to that. Originally part of a Spanish Land Grant the area went through a series of land owners until, after some failed oil exploration, many of the settlers decided to form an actual town and Nordhoff was born. You’ll still see the old name around town. In the early 20th century a businessman named Edward Libbey, from Toledo, Ohio came to Nordhoff and immediately fell in love with the place. In 1914 he unveiled grand plans to create a viable community, a cohesive town rather than the ramshackle stores and buildings that were congregated on the main street. In 1917 he got his chance. A fire decimated much of the town and Libbey was handed a clean slate so he financed much of the civic development to realize his dream. His work gives downtown Ojai its distinctive charm: a Spanish Colonial-style arcade along the main street, a post office tower designed after Havana’s Campanile and a pergola facing the arcade, the entrance to a civic park named, not surprisingly, Libbey Park.

Ojai Avenue and the tower of the Post Office

The name Ojai (correctly pronounced “o-hi”) is derived from the Chumash Indian word “awhai.” The word might mean “nest” or it might mean “moon” depending on whom you ask. Much of the literature about Ojai claims one meaning over the other, but frankly there is no definite proof of either. The Ojai Valley is ten miles long and three miles wide and is home to transverse mountains, meaning they lie in an east and west configuration, whereas most of California’s mountains run north and south. The surrounding mountains are capped by Topa Topa, the highest peak, which soars from near sea level to a height of 6,244 feet and occasionally gets a dusting of snow.

Ojai Avenue with the snow capped Top Topa's in the background

Ojai Avenue is the main street and the life blood of Ojai, the defining central point which allows residents and tourists alike a sense of cohesion and an introduction to what Ojai is all about. Easy to walk, here are some of the places you might want to check out. Art galleries like Primavera Gallery (214 E. Ojai Ave., 805/646-7133, and Trowbridge Gallery (307 E. Ojai Ave., 805/646-0967, will give you an idea of the visuals that local artists can produce. Stop in the wine tasting room of Casa Barranca (208 E. Ojai Ave., 805/640-1255, which is an organic winery. Their tasting room echoes Craftsmen-styled architecture with lots of wood and Mission Stickley patterns on the furnishings and bar. There are a few gift items as well and a few tables and chairs in which to sit and relax and sample organic wines like chardonnay, pinot noir and various blends. Then there is The Hub (256 E. Ojai Ave., 805/646-9182) an old school bar from 1948. You don’t get fancy drinks here, you get beer in a can, and there’s no pretension to the Hub at all. It’s comfortable and neighborly and the last of a vanishing breed of bars. Every Sunday morning they offer a Bloody Mary bar along with biscuits and gravy.
Bart's Books

Just a block off Ojai Avenue is Bart’s Book’s (302 W. Matilija, 805/646-3755) famous for being a mostly outdoor bookstore, with 35-cent specials on a shelf outside, sold on the honor system since 1964, when the original Bart first put out a coffee can to collect his earnings when he wasn't around. A 420 year-old oak tree shades the property.

No matter how you choose to spend your time in Ojai, you’ll end up coming back. There’s much more to see and do in this little village.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Spring into Action: Spring-time Activities on California’s Central Coast

There’s something about spring that makes you want to get off your couch, toss off the long johns and get outside. No where is this better expressed that being on California’s Central Coast, from Ventura through Santa Barbara and Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo, there are a litany of great spring activities. First off though, spring time on California’s Central Coast doesn’t mean summer, and the temperatures will be cooler, especially in the morning and evening, so pack a sweater. Spring has the most pristine weather and the skies are usually crystal clear, the crowds of summer haven’t arrived yet, and you pretty much have the run of the place. Here are a few suggestions:

The featured painting at the 2010 I Madonnari

Santa Barbara-
The I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival is held at the Santa Barbara Mission every Memorial Day weekend ( When you were a kid you probably used chalk to deface things. As adults we don’t allow that, with the exception of this festival. The Mission parking lot is transformed from bleak black to more than 200 chalk paintings as artists, both local and from across the globe, take chalk to asphalt and create beautiful reproductions of classic works and original drawings. There are plenty of food vendors, live music, or bring a picnic and watch art in action.

Artists work dilligently to create very cool works

The International Orchid Show ( may seem like just flowers, but ask any lover of orchids and they will tell you passionate stories. The festival, held each March, is thousands of unique and in some cases bizarre looking plants. Experts are on hand to discuss orchids and there are a large number for sale. Santa Barbara enjoys a mild, Mediterranean climate with temperate nights and soft ocean breezes and orchids took root at the turn of the century when wealthy industrialists came to Santa Barbara’s burgeoning spas and resorts to escape harsh, Eastern winters. Many of them stayed, building estates and commissioning world-class horticulturists to design elaborate gardens.

Music to your ears is what the Ventura Music Festival, ( held the first week of May, is all about. Diane Schuur, Pink Martini, and Herbie Hancock are just a few of the acts that have claimed center stage in a variety of unique and intimate venues throughout the county. In addition to concerts there are lectures, live talks, and interviews with the artists.

Artwalk ( held the middle of April is a free, self-guided walking tour of 200 established and emerging artists at over 80 galleries, studios and eclectic gallery-for-a day venues in Ventura’s Downtown Cultural District. The event is held just steps from the beach and the Ventura Pier. Participating art venues include restaurants, salons, antique shops, boutiques, coffee shops, most any place with walls.
The Taste of Solvang ( is a food and wine event starting with a dessert reception, and considering the pastry and sweets history of the Danes, that’s enough right there. Following that is the walking smörgåsbord which features about 40 stops in town where you pop in and sample what they might be serving, usually Danish food. Ten wine tasting rooms are pouring their vintages, and this is finished off with live entertainment in the park where people bring a picnic and relax.

Solvang makes the ideal quaint backdrop for the food & wine

Pismo Beach: Each March the World of Pinot Noir, ( an all pinot noir event, is held on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. This three day event is filled with seminars about growing conditions and regions of pinot noir, there’s a vintage tasting and a chef’s challenge. The pinot noirs are not exclusive to California either; winemakers come from Oregon and Europe. It’s a focused time on one varietal; a pinot propaganda program.

Avila Bay:
So wine’s not your thing. Then hop to the California Festival of Beers, ( held each May at the Avila Beach Resort, which is nearly 50 brewers from the West Coast and beyond who gather beachside to celebrate all things beer. Get your pretzel necklace, enjoy the live music, the golf tournament, and know that the proceeds from the event support hospice of San Luis Obispo. This event always sells out.

Paso Robles:
If you enjoy wine and food but are concerned about the toll on the environment, then the Earth Day Wine & Food Festival (held the weekend closest to Earth Day, is right up your carbon footprint. Food is served on, and with, recyclable and compostable plates, bowls, forks and spoons. All literature is produced using post-consumer recycled materials, and even the entertainment stage is solar-powered. About 200 producers of sustainably grown food and wine gather to let you sample dishes sourced from locally grown fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, olive oils and, of course, wine. There is live music, a silent auction, and the chance to kick back and meet the farmers and vintners who are committed to sustainability.

Kites like this one cover Morro Bay
Morro Bay:
Every April the Morro Bay Kite Festival ( transforms the skies around the bay with colorful kites undulating in the breezes. Kites up to 100 feet long and of every size and shape are welcome. The festival starts off with the ceremonial Blessing of the Wind by local Chumash Indians, and there are displays, vendor booths even choreographed kite ballets. The skies never looked so colorful. It’s free to attend.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Wine and Waves & Bottles and Boards: The Central Coasts' Surfer/Winemakers

Some of the Central Coasts' Surfer/Winemakers

There has long been a romantic ideal attached with winemaking; the handcrafting, the upscale image, the near rock-star status associated with being a winemaker. Conversely, there has consistently been a slacker image attached with surfing; days wasted by the ocean, a frivolous lifestyle, and the ubiquitous use of the word “dude.”  But there are similarities between these two diametric opposites. The Central Coast is home to a number of winemakers who surf, or depending on your perspective, surfers who make wine. Some of them recently discussed the congruent nature of hang time and hanging ten.

Hanging out at Leadbetter Beach in Santa Barbara 

From Santa Barbara, Craig Jaffurs of Jaffurs Wine Cellars, Etienne Terlinden from Summerland Winery, Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines, Mike Brown of Kalyra and Steve Clifton of Palmina, joined forces with San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles guys; Craig Shannon of Per Bacco Cellars, Steve Kroener from Silver Horse Winery, Josh Beckett of Peachy Canyon, and Eric Ogorsolka of Zenadia Cellars. They each brought their wines, their boards and their thoughts on both. Steve Clifton grew up in San Clemente and the ocean has always been a part of his life. “Both surfing and winemaking have given me a relationship with nature, to understand its cycles, seasonal changes and how the earth moves and breathes,” he says. "It’s still the one and only place I feel truly relaxed and removed from the stresses of everyday life." Etienne Terlinden has the same affection for the water. As an avid surfer and member of the U.S. naval reserves the sea is an integral part of his life both inside and outside the vineyard. “The oceans have a profound effect on climate which ultimately regulates our macro, mezzo and micro climates around the vineyards. Winemakers, especially those who make pinot noir and chardonnay in Santa Barbara, realize the great quality of wines grown in proximity to the coast,” he says. “I appreciate the importance of the sea to make my living as a winemaker. I live my daily life in awe of its force," Terlinden adds.  

A perfect afternoon to shoot the breeze and sample each others wines
 Both surfing and winemaking have their ups and downs and often there are long bouts of tedium. “Surf travels with long flat spells,” Josh Beckett says. “It's frustrating and tiring but the surfer keeps going back for more, searching out new destinations.” He admits that the similarity in winemaking is that he’ll go for weeks on end with no days off during harvest. “As a surfer I look for the perfect wave, as a winemaker I'm searching for the best fruit," he says. Craig Shannon smiles and nods. “Paddling into a wave is like tasting a wine with all your senses keyed in,” he states.  There is a murmur of agreement. “During harvest," Jaffurs adds, “I'll check Jalama Point at dawn, then visit my Lompoc and Santa Maria vineyard sites before returning to the winery in Santa Barbara.” It makes for a long day, but he wouldn't trade is for anything.

For all surfers, the ocean can be fickle, creating a sense of danger as well as a natural high. But there is something more, something spiritual and grounding. “There is mostly a feeling of calm and clarity I get from surfing,” says Eric Ogorsolka. “This helps open a door into my creativity when I’m at the winery. Winemaking is hard work, but there are moments that take finesse, an artistic ability. Anyone can make wine, but it takes a little talent to put together a wine with style and grace.” He pauses and looks at the amber sun as it kisses the horizon. “When I surf I like to feel the wave beneath my feet and ride it out, not tame it or slap it into submission. It’s the same with my winemaking; I’m not attacking the grapes but guiding them along the path, riding them out," he says.

The benefits of a hard day surfing and making wine!
Craig Jaffurs is the most poetic about bottles and boards. “My best days at the winery always come after the best morning surf. The same joy I get surfing at dawn is the same joy I get walking a vineyard, tasting through barrel samples or just opening the roll up door at the winery.” Though surfing inspires and anchors each of these guys, ultimately it doesn’t pay the bills. “Look, when the surf comes up and I need to make wine, I make wine,” Jaffurs confesses. “The surf will be there another day, but the windows to success in winemaking are fleeting. You only get one chance a year to catch the perfect harvest.”
When you visit the Central Coast, be sure to check out these wineries, and toast them with a glass of wine while you’re at the beach. Wine and waves are just part of the Central Coast lifestyle. Come explore!